White Christian Fear of Racism
I’ve hit a conundrum I can’t understand. I’ve been Christian since the moment my mother hit her knees and, against every fiber in her being, gave up her motherly control over me to have me baptized as “God’s own forever.” As such, I know sin as separation of God. I also know the good news that repentance leads to return and redemption. With all this under my belt, I don’t understand white Christian fear of racism.
Mention racism and what we white Christians do is run into a barb-wired, “do not touch” area. No, we will not examine that plank in our eye, much less try to remove it. Talking about racism makes us uncomfortable, and we don’t want to be made uncomfortable. I mean, of course we make ourselves uncomfortable all the damn time—”we bewail our manifold sins and wickedness.” But not with racism. It’s off limits.
Fear of Racism
White Christians know the generational horrors of racism. We surely believe racism exists and is a sin. So why do we refuse to talk about it? Because we believe it has nothing to do with us? I get that reaction. What I don’t get is the outrage when anyone suggests we at least examine that conclusion. Our spiritual leaders ask us to probe our hearts ALL THE TIME to see where we’ve strayed from the path God wants for us. But just mention racism and see what happens. Faces harden. Cheeks redden. Heads turn away and shoes slap the floor as they walk out the door.
Something is making this particular sin off-limits to the white church. Maybe it’s fear of giving up the fruits of racism. Or the deep insult we feel being called racist. Or hearing in the very question a criticism of huge efforts we’ve made in our past to respect and get along. But when we give into our white Christian fear of racism and turn away, we rob our souls.
Christian Fear of Racism and Our Souls
I’ve lived my life believing in the “compartmentalized” way. Those who have come before us were geniuses like Thomas Jefferson and, unfortunately, they were racists. Or, they were great writers like Flannery O’Connor and, unfortunately, also racist (go back and re-read “Everything that Rises Must Converge” with her racism in mind—you’ll experience it in a totally different way, I promise.) We tell ourselves we can safely lock their—our—racism into a box and not consider it. That their racism—our racism—has nothing to do with our souls.
But after reading all these books about white Christianity—Be the Bridge. Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Domination in the US. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. The Church Cracked Open. Fierce Love. The Color of Compromise. Resurrection Hope—I have come to believe racism blocks our relationship with God. Racism warps our paths taken, and too many of those paths lead to dead ends in a maze. Until we address our racism, we cannot begin to walk the path to spiritual maturity.
God and Fear of Racism
Racism lets us lie to ourselves. It tells us we’re so much smarter than we are. It tells us we’ve achieved what we’ve achieved all on our own, when, in truth, we’ve ridden the system and artificially restricted the competition down to other white folks. Racism supports our ego and ego is the biggest obstacle to closeness to God. Power, privilege, judging others, treating our neighbor as ourselves—these are big-ass Christian tenets. Leaving them unexamined, refusing to even engage with the question, keeps us from wrestling into our better selves.
In some ways I understand white Christian fear of racism. It’s not an easy road. Partly because we’ve built up racism as such a bugaboo. Partly because we instinctively know that once we head down this path, we’ll be asked to change. But isn’t walking with God always change? An actually desired change? Or does that desire apply in all areas except racism? If we’re told there’s one big area that gives us a huge opportunity to strengthen our relationship with God, why don’t we dive into that truth like weary travelers into a cool green lake? t’s a conundrum I cannot get to make sense.
What you have written here is a wonderful overview of my life story. Thank you. Your words are for me are so well connected to the Christian teaching that hove impacted my life most profoundly (e.g “sin is separation” not sex, drugs and rock and roll” as I was taught early on).
I was in college in Memphis in 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated there. In the two years following that my young life went through a major transformation, especially how I viewed being a “Christian” through what was then the lens of Evangelical Christianity with residues of the belief that people of the world are divided into the saved and the unsaved, those who are “in” and those who are “out.”
I became a zealot for Jesus and for a version of “racial integration” as seen through the very dark glass of my 21 year old self. I son felt that I knew everything there is to know about race. And I was glad to judge and correct all my White friends who were not as “advanced” as I was then. I taught two years in an all Black high school from age 21 to 23. That really undergirded my newly found righteousness!
Not long after that I moved west, to Berkeley as a matter of fact, and soon became a proud” west coast liberal,” and remained one until 2010 when we moved back to Memphis, not the same city as it was when I left it in 1974, and yet it was very much the same. I felt culture shock as I had never felt it before.
I began to learn how much I did not know about racism, all around me, but especially inside me, and in truths about the city’s history that I had never learned. It was an unexpected time of discovery and shock for me, even me, one of the best liberals I have ever met!
Some new healing began. A lot of compassion from both Black and White friends surrounded me and provided a vessel within me that could hold the hard truths of it all and I became willing to learn more, though never without hesitations.
Even with the limps and scars that come with discovering deeper truths, I am grateful to have made it to this place where I feel like I have barely begun to see the truth of it all and that my learning now seems to consist mostly in discovering more and more of how much there is of all that I don’t know about racism in my country and in my own bodyspirit.
Thank you for this thoughtful, concise way to speak some of this truth
Ellen Morris Prewitt
You are welcome! Of all things, I didn’t know you were in Memphis in ’68, nor about your teaching experience while there (You know someone for a while and it feels too late to ask, tell me your life story again?) So this was a nice read for me, plus I’m doubly glad it affirmed your journey—-I hate hitting the “Publish” button on these posts about racism because it can sound like a) I know what I’m talking about and b) you don’t. I relate to what you’re saying about discovery being accompanied by shock. I experience a shock each time I suddenly see for the first time a self-evident truth that was not self-evident for me. That flash of realizing my ignorance, the disorientation of not knowing, the humiliation of not knowing. The mistake of not knowing. But to turn away from those revelations about myself is to accept a wilted relationship with God. Thank you for letting me know your thoughts–it’s really good to talk to you.
I think most Christian churches emphasize individual sin and sideline/ignore what my Catholic tradition calls social sin, such as racism, sexism, prejudice and discrimination of all sorts, exploration of people and the earth, etc. Church leaders too often set themselves up as judges over individuals, while ignoring their own abuses of power and/or complicity in the lack of justice in our organizations and society. Charity is a wonderful thing but God calls us beyond charity to justice and right relationship. While there are many people within the church, who are working toward this, too often the larger organizations quash discussion of racism and other social sins and don’t ask for the Spirit to show us the yet “more excellent way.” Thank you for pointing out this issue, Ellen. It’s so helpful to name a problem and bring it to the light.
Ellen Morris Prewitt
Ah, thank you. As Randall notes in his comment, I’m starting with a focus on sin—that which separates me from God—that’s not a universal focus. And an uncomfortable ask of church leaders who don’t want to give up their own power and privilege of judging others. Very helpful, Joanne. I shall keep asking for the Spirit to show me the yet “more excellent way.”
I was reading this meditation from Richard Rohr today and thought of this thread https://cac.org/daily-meditations/evil-is-a-social-reality-2023-05-14/
At first I thought you had stopped writing and gone to meddling, but the more I read, the more convinced I became that this was a genuinely serious bit of writing, and not just serious either, but a seriously badass piece of writing. You are now truly speaking truth to power. And you called forth a lovely response from my friend Randall who was here in Memphis when the really bad stuff went down. I think this is one of your best pieces ever–a capstone in your long series of writings.
I think it is possible to be 3 things at the same time: Christian, anti-racist, and an honest white southerner .Each of these things is profoundly difficult and necessary iif we are to climb out of the pit in which we now live. You have pointed the way. Do keep writing, that is, keep being the badass, tough, honest, prophetic writer you are
Ellen Morris Prewitt
“Christian, anti-racist, and an honest white southerner.” You’re right. Each hard individually and really hard taken together. My being badass (which I’m going claim all the way) is probably the result of my not really how touchy subjects are so I just stumble around asking questions that I’d really like answers to. 😄 Thank you for the support and encouragement. I much appreciate it. Hope to see you soon.